Mississippi jack, p.35
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       Mississippi Jack, p.35

           L. A. Meyer
 

  Higgins nods, looking over both the Belle and the Britannia.

  "You could release the other boat and let them make their own way downriver."

  "I could, but I don't want to leave them unarmed and helpless in this wilderness. But on the other hand, I don't want to give them back their guns—Captain Allen might feel honor bound to try to capture me. After all, I am a wanted fugitive. I know he wouldn't do it for the reward, but he might do it out of a sense of duty. No, I must have his parole."

  "Do you think he would stand by his word, if he gave it?"

  "He could have ravished me when I was a bound captive and he didn't, though I know he very much wanted to."

  "Hmm. Well, that's commendable. Is he really a lord? I heard you call him that."

  "Aye. He portrays himself as the black sheep of the family."

  "Umm."

  We both sit and mull over the problem for a while, then Higgins says, "You'll remember, Miss, that during yesterday's discussion with Captain Allen, he asked if you would return the money and you refused."

  "Right. It goes against my nature to return plunder."

  "I know. But consider this: I have counted the money and it is not much—only eight hundred and ninety American dollars. We have been making steady money on our way down these rivers. What with the Cave-in-Rock loot, the income from the performances, the house percentage from Mr. Cantrell's games, and the tavern sales, we are quite well-fixed. We shall be able to pay off everybody when we get to New Orleans and book quite comfortable ship passage to anywhere you might like to go."

  "We'll be even better off if we keep that money."

  "Yes, but I will say again that this is Crown money. If you are ever taken by the British government, you could make a strong case against the piracy charge, since you had the Letter of Marque. Your seizing of the Emerald could be justified, too, because as commander of the Wolverine, you felt it was your fair share of the prizes. But if you keep the scalp money, you would not be able to argue against a charge of common theft of the King's treasure. There would never be a hope of acquittal or of pardon. I say it's not worth it."

  I give out a low grumble of dissatisfaction, but I say, "Oh, very well, then. We'll give it back. But if any of our pirate acquaintances from last summer's Caribbean cruise get wind of this, I shall be mortified. Drummed out of the Brotherhood, as it were."

  "If any of them remain yet unhanged, Miss, we shall certainly endeavor to keep it from them."

  "Good, then let's set up another parley with Captain Allen. Go see him, please, and take a bottle of wine and present it with my compliments and request that he join me for lunch at my table here. If you could whip up something special from our stores, Higgins, I would greatly appreciate it. Oh, and my blue dress, if you would."

  The arrangements are made, Captain Allen's temporary parole is taken, the two boats are brought together, and he hops over onto the Belle and is escorted up to my table by First Mate Higgins.

  I, of course, am not there to see it. When I am told he has been seated, I give my chest one more dab with the powder puff, I assume the Lawson Peabody Look—eyes hooded, chin up as if balancing an invisible book on my head, lips together, teeth apart—and I go up to join him. He has seen me as Wah-chinga, Indian Maiden, and then as Lieutenant Faber, Naval Officer, but now he shall see me as Jacky Faber, Fine Lady, or at least the best I can manage in that regard.

  I am taken up to the table on Higgins's arm, and Captain Allen, resplendent in his regimental jacket of scarlet, rises. He looks me over and pulls out my chair. I smooth the back of my dress and sit down.

  "Thank you for inviting me, Miss Faber. You could not look lovelier."

  "It is my pleasure, Captain Allen. However, before I take refreshment, I must insist that you take off your fine coat, as it is much too warm today. You can see that I, myself, am dressed in a manner quite cool."

  My blue dress, which I had first tailored on the mizzen top of HMS Dolphin and which has since gone through many alterations by female hands much more expert than mine, does not cover much of my upper body. It leaves my shoulders bare, while it pushes up certain parts of me in a hopefully appealing way. Higgins has arranged my hair in an upswept French fashion, which, I think, makes me look older than my years.

  Nodding, Allen, whose gaze is fixed on my bodice, strips off his jacket, drapes it over the back of his chair, and sits back down.

  "Thank you, Higgins," I say, as he fills my glass. When he is done, I lift it and say, "A glass of wine with you, Sir. Shall we not toast to love and friendship?"

  "Aye, that we most certainly shall," he says, clinking his glass to mine and looking into my eyes with a good deal of heat. "But I cannot think that you invited me over just for that."

  "Oh, no, Captain, I do not take you for a fool. We shall parley, you and I, to seek a solution to your unfortunate situation, but we will do that after we dine. Higgins has prepared some very special treats."

  "Very well, Jacky, you may try to soften me up with some wine and then we shall talk—oh, and may I call you Jacky? I once did, you know. What was it, all of ... yesterday?"

  "Yes, you may, Richard, as we are of similar rank."

  "What? A captain surely outranks a mere lieutenant?"

  "He does in the Army, Sir, where there is the rank of major, and lieutenant colonel to which a mere lieutenant can aspire before he reaches the Flag rank of colonel. But in the Navy there is only lieutenant and captain, as in captain of a ship. Many have spent long, honorable careers as lieutenants. I am proud to have been named one."

  He gazes at me without expression. "You know, when you told me of your past life yesterday, I didn't believe half of it. Now I am starting to change my mind."

  "Put thoughts of any kind out of your mind, Richard, and enjoy what Higgins is setting before us. See, those are rare mushrooms that Katy Deere has gathered—oh, no, they are quite safe, as we have already eaten many of them. And that is the finest of sturgeon roe over there—caviar, and right here in the American wilderness! Can you imagine? And Crow Jane tells me that soon we shall be in the land of the crawdads, little creatures that look like miniature lobsters and taste divine." I clasp my hands together in rapture. "Is not the world a place of wonder, Richard?"

  "Oh, indeed, Jacky," he says, his eyes never leaving either me or my own eyes. "It is that."

  The dinner finished and the table cleared, we turn to business.

  "Captain Allen, we cannot have your men suffering confinement any longer. It is cruel, and I won't have it. I must have your parole."

  "What you mean is you don't want your crew rowing us downriver while we sit at our leisure. Do you mind if I smoke?" He pulls out a cheroot and holds it up for Higgins to light. "Thank you, Higgins. If you ever lack for employment, please look me up."

  "What I mean is, we must come to an agreement." I lean forward, over the table. "In return for your parole, your promise not to harm us, I will give you back the money, provided you do not use it to buy scalps."

  "Very nice move there, my dear, that bit with your chest," he says, lifting his eyes from my chest and puffing on his cigar. "But we'll need a little more than that. Will you give us back our weapons?"

  "That would be hard for me to do. You could take me captive again, and carry me back to England, where I would surely be hanged," I say, dropping the eyelashes over the eyes and squeezing out a tear.

  "I know that you plan to stop in the towns that lie below us, to put on your shows. We would be with you, but we cannot be seen without guns. It would shame the men beyond all endurance. They wouldn't stand for it."

  "Suppose we give you back the weapons, but without powder and shot?"

  "Hmmm. That might be acceptable. I assume we'll be allowed to leave when we wish?"

  "If you want to leave us now, I won't prevent you, but unarmed in these hostile territories, well, you might reconsider..."

  "Our sabers. They will be returned?"

  "Yes."

  "
I think we are close to agreement, my dear."

  "That is very good, Richard. What do you plan to do with the money?"

  He takes another long drag on his cigar and then brings his attention back to me. "I plan to acquire horses when we reach a place called Baton Rouge, which is in Louisiana, and it is there that we will leave you. We'll travel overland to the south and thereby find our way back to our base in Jamaica. According to maps left behind by former agents Moseley and Flashby, we'll be getting into flatter, more open country, and much more suited to horses, and at Baton Rouge we should be able to get outfitted properly. I must tell you that, however charming the company, these leaky, damp, and altogether wretched boats do not suit Heavy Cavalry. I can tell you the lads will be much relieved."

  "We have agreement, then?"

  "Umm. And just what did you do with Moseley and Flashby?"

  "I marooned them on separate sides of the river, many miles upriver, and several miles apart, dressed only in their drawers."

  Richard Allen throws back his head and roars with laughter. "Serves the buggers right! Oh Lord, the picture of Flashbutt scurrying around in the bush with only his knickers to protect him from mosquitoes, gnats, and hostiles! It is just too, too rich!"

  I rise from the table. "All right, Richard. Recite to me your oath."

  He rises and holds out his half-full glass to me. "I, Richard Allen, Captain of Royal Dragoons, give my pledge that I will not cause harm to you, Lieutenant Jacky Faber, nor to any of your crew of the ... what?"—he pauses to look over the side to read—"the Belle of the Golden West, in return for the terms agreed upon."

  He drains the glass and continues. "I do, however, reserve the right to continue to pursue the aforementioned Jacky Faber, Wah-chinga, and Princess Pretty-Bottom, for purposes amorous!"

  I lift my own glass and say, "It is so agreed. You may re-lease your men and tell them of the terms. Please station your own men on the tiller and sweeps as soon as possible. Have them take position behind us until we stop for the night. Since you have already dined here, we will have Sergeant Bailey and Privates McMann and Merrick over for dinner tonight. As for assaults on my virtue, you, Lord Allen, are confined to the Britannia unless specifically invited over to my ship."

  Richard Allen prepares to leave. "So you do not trust me, then?"

  I down my glass and say, so that others cannot hear, "Nay, Richard, it is myself that I do not trust."

  He smiles, bows, looks at me from under lowered brows, and then crosses over to the Britannia.

  Hmmm...

  ***

  The three soldiers are shy at first, but they are soon relaxed by the food, the drink, and the general merriment of our little tavern, to say nothing of the presence of Clementine, Chloe, Honeysuckle Rose, Tupelo Honey, and my own cheeky self. In no time at all, the stiff-collared red jackets are cast aside and the dragoons are bellowing right along with us as we sing every song we know.

  As I crawl into bed, thankful for the bits of canvas that we'd rigged to scoop any errant breeze directly into our cabins, I gaze up at my picture of you, Jaimy, and pray once more for your health and safety. I have no idea where you are and I'm sure you couldn't possibly guess my whereabouts, either. We are just two little specks on the surface of this great big old world, aren't we?

  G'night, Clementine. G'night, Chloe. G'night, Katy...

  G'night, Jaimy.

  Chapter 56

  And so my fleet, such as it is, rolls on down the Big River. Higgins has taken to calling me Commodore again, Solomon is teaching me the guitar, Pretty Saro grows bigger by the day, and what I'm going to do about that, I do not know.

  Memphis is a pretty large settlement, compared to what we have seen lately, so we set up for the full show there, and do well. We haven't had to use the trapdoor since Moseley and Flashby—it doesn't hurt to have a fully armed squad of redcoats ready to dampen the spirits of any would-be troublemaker, does it? Even if the guns are not loaded, they are in plain sight, and there are those cavalry sabers hanging by the soldiers' sides. There had been a few small settlements on the way here, so tiny that Sergeant Bailey and his men made up a large part of the audience, but they were appreciative of the shows and applauded loudly—especially when my dress comes off in the last act of The Villain Pursues Constant Maiden. Captain Allen had insisted that he be given a part in the play, and so he was given the role of Captain Strongheart, which he played with great gusto. He was much better at it than poor Jim, who was glad to get out of the part, and at the end, I would fall into Richard's arms, which was fun. No kiss, though, oh no. I must be good. And careful.

  When we leave Memphis, it is not long till it is no longer Tennessee, but the Louisiana Territory, that we have on our left.

  "No, Miss Jacky, you've got to get your pinky finger all the way down here, and you got to hold the string down hard, so's it won't buzz when you pluck it with your other hand."

  We are at my table on the cabin top, under the canopy.

  "But, Solomon," I wail, "it won't stretch that far. My hands are half the size of yours!"

  "It'll stretch. I seen littler girls than you make that chord. There, see, you got it, Miss Jacky. Now with your right hand do thumb, first finger, thumb, middle, and now do it again till you got a nice roll goin', like that. Good. Now keep up that roll and change to the G chord. Good! Now you rollin'! You a fast learner, Miss Jacky."

  Solomon had not known the names of the fingerings, but he did know how to do them. So after we matched up the chords to the notes on Chloe's harpsichord, we were able to name them, which made it easier for me to learn.

  Although I glow under his praise, I grumble, "You don't have to butter me up, Solomon. No one else around here does. And you must stop calling me Miss Jacky. It sounds too slavey, and you're a free man now. You may call me Jacky."

  "Huh, I'll count myself a free man when I step on the dirt of a free state, not before, and as for callin' you by your name, huh! See this neck that my head sits on, Miss Jacky? Well, I'm right fond of it and don't want no rope gettin' around it, just 'cause some cracker in one of these towns hears me slip up and call you Jacky, all familiar-like. Uh-uh, no, Ma'am."

  "Then how about Miss, like Higgins does, or Skipper, like the Hawkes boys do, or Missy, like Jim?"

  "All right, Missy, but if we ever in the hearin' of any crackers, then you'll hear me fallin' right back into Miss Jacky right quick. Now, whyn't you try that Frenchy thing again?"

  I finger the C chord and start the roll with my right hand, and then I start to sing that song I had learned from our rich French captive on board the Emerald. What was his name? Oh, yes, the Marquis de Mont Blanc, the man with many jewels, half of which he left with us, much to his sorrow.

  Plaisir d'amour

  Ne dure qu'un moment.

  Chagrin d'amour

  Dure toute la vie.

  I run through the three chords used in this song, keeping up the roll, and then I sing the translation.

  Joys of love

  Are but a moment long.

  Pain of love endures

  The whole life long.

  A final strum across all strings and I'm done. It does sound so much better than with the fiddle. I shall learn to do all my slow, sad songs on the guitar, I think, and save the fast, raucous stuff for Lady Gay.

  "Bravo, Jacky! Bravo!" I look over to see Richard Allen, seated at his table on the cabin top of the Britannia, in open white shirt, white britches, and black boots. He has taken to setting his table up there in a mockery, I think, of mine. He has a glass of wine in front of him, no doubt from the case he bought from us, paid for, I'm sure, from the scalp money that I returned to him. It seems he means to be quite free with it.

  "I thought I told you to stay behind us. You are blocking my view of the shore."

  "The better to hear your sweet voice, my dear, raised in joyous song!" he taunts. "Perhaps you'll join me in this one. I'm sure you know it." He stands up and, completely unabashedly, begins to si
ng.

  There once was a troop of British dragoons,

  Went marching down to Fennario,

  And their captain fell in love,

  With a lady like a dove,

  And they called her by name, pretty Jacky-o.

  This could be fun, I'm thinking. Why not? I rise and go over to the edge of the cabin top, opposite him, as he does the second verse.

  Oh, I will give you ribbons, love,

  And I will give you rings,

  And a necklace of pure amber-o,

  And a silken petticoat with flounces to the knee,

  If you'll take me into your chamber-o.

  Solomon takes the guitar from my hand and begins to strum along with the tune. On the other boat, Archy MacDuff has taken up a small snare drum and begins a soft rum-tum-tum in march time, so I know this is a set-up thing. No matter. I lift my voice and and give the song back to him.

  Oh, I'll not go with you, sweet Richard-o,

  And I'll not take you into my chamber-o.

  No, I'll not marry you, for your guineas are too few,

  And I fear it would anger my poor mama-o.

  Striding to the edge of his cabin top, Allen, cigar in hand, sends it back to me.

  What will your mother think, pretty Jacky-o?

  What will your mother think, my sweetheart-o?

  What will your mother think

  When she hears the guineas clink,

  And my soldiers all marching before you-o?

  The man on Britannia's tiller thinks it would be in his captain's interest to bring the boats even closer together, so that Captain Allen and I are a mere six feet apart. I puff out my chest and trade another verse.

  I never did intend a soldier's wife to be,

  No, a soldier shall never enjoy me-o.

  I never will go into a foreign land,

  And I never will marry you, sweet Richard-o.

 
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